Analyzing the impact of the four returning Iowa football seniors

In an offseason full of departures, some Hawkeyes opted to return for the 2021 season.


Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa specialist Caleb Shudak kicks off during a football game between Iowa and Michigan State in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. The Hawkeyes dominated the Spartans, 49-7.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

In an offseason full of Iowa football players departing the program for a chance at the NFL, the Hawkeyes have retained four seniors who will contribute to the Black and Gold in 2021.

Kicker Caleb Shudak and long snapper Austin Spiewak will both return as sixth-year seniors next season, Chad Leistikow of the Des Moines Register reported Sunday. They join fellow seniors, cornerback Matt Hankins and defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who have committed to extending their Hawkeye careers.

Under normal circumstances, none of these four players would have the option to play another year at Iowa. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season didn’t count toward a year of eligibility, so these players had the option to return for another season.

From Daviyon Nixon to Ihmir Smith-Marsette to Keith Duncan, the Iowa football team is losing plenty of key contributors in all three phases heading into the 2021 season.

But these four seniors, as well as center Tyler Linderbaum, a Rimington Trophy finalist who is returning for his fourth year in Iowa City rather than turning pro, provide a boost to next season’s Iowa squad.

Caleb Shudak and Austin Spiewak

Iowa lost one of the best kickers in program history this offseason in Duncan, who emerged late in his five-year career as a top-tier player at his position in the nation. But head coach Kirk Ferentz said throughout the past two seasons that the competition between Duncan and Shudak was close ahead of the 2019 season.

Shudak has a stronger leg than Duncan and has attempted long field goal attempts at times for the Hawkeyes. Duncan was virtually automatic from inside 40 yards, so Shudak rarely saw the field outside of handling kickoff duties.

With Spiewak back as the starting long snapper, Iowa will be confident in its field goal unit heading into next season. And since Tory Taylor is back after his breakout freshman season as Iowa’s punter, the Hawkeye special teams units should be strong once again in 2021.

Zach VanValkenburg

Two years after transferring to Iowa from a Division II college, VanValkenburg was a second-team All-Big Ten selection on the defensive line last season.

First team all-conference defensive linemen Chauncey Golston and Nixon are gone from last season’s team, as is starting defensive tackle Jack Heflin. So, VanValkenburg opting to return for a sixth college season and a third season as a Hawkeyes provides the team with a leader up front in 2021.

The Zeeland, Michigan, native compiled 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks as a starter at defensive end in 2020. 

Matt Hankins

Phil Parker will have a lot of experience in his secondary in 2021.

For Hankins, a four-year starter at cornerback for Iowa, coming back for another year means the Hawkeyes have all five of their starters from the 2020 defensive backfield back for 2021.

Riley Moss started opposite Hankins at corner last season and is heading into his fourth year in the program. Safeties Jack Koerner and Kaevon Merriweather, as well as Dane Belton, the starter at the “Cash” position, will also be back in Kinnick Stadium.

Last season, Hankins tallied five pass break-ups and one interception. The Lewisville, Texas, native is the closest thing Iowa has to a shutdown corner and will be one of the best returning defensive backs in the conference next season and a key member of a veteran Hawkeye secondary.